Banaue and Batad: The Rice Terraces
When people think of the Philippines, many think of the beautiful white sand beaches of Boracay, or the underground river adventure in Palawan, or the picturesque lagoons of El Nido. Few imagine the endless steps, breathtaking vistas, and adventure trekking available in Banaue and Batad, in the north of Luzon island.
The Philippines was on my bucket list for one reason: Palawan. A friend visited years ago to film some travel videos, and from the moment I laid eyes on those karst peaks and turquoise lagoons, I was a goner. I had to go. I had to experience that kind of natural beauty firsthand. A video simply wasn’t enough.
So I filed it onto my bucket list, and when my trek through Southeast Asia came to fruition, I carefully marked off nearly four weeks to explore the country. A couple weeks before I jumped from Vietnam to the island nation, I started to research exactly what I wanted to do in those four weeks.
My trusty Lonely Planet outlined everything that was possible, and I soon realized my error: Four weeks wasn’t even close to enough time to experience everything the Philippines has to offer. I was now in the impossible situation of having to choose.
I landed in Manila, like most do, and I knew that Luzon (the island where Manila is located), had a lot to offer. But how much time should I carve away from my precious Palawan? The blogs I followed explained that I could easily spend a whole month just there. But it would be a waste not to see at a little of what Luzon had to offer, so I settled on the rice terraces of Banaue and Batad, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Getting to Banaue and Batad
The rice terrace region is serviced by regular overnight buses from Manila. There are two main companies who ply the route: Florida and Ohayami. I took Ohayami because a little research brought up a fatal accident on a Florida bus, and I figured it was better to play it safe.
I arrived in Manila from Ho Chi Minh City in the morning and promptly took a taxi directly to the bus station to book my overnight bus to the mountains. I was able to secure a seat on the 9 p.m. bus, but I now had 7 hours to kill. So I jumped on a trike and went to the nearest megamall. And wow, can Manila do a megamall! My first impression? The American influence is strong. Fast food restaurants that didn’t even have storefronts in Australia were crammed into the food courts here. So naturally I happily inhaled a Wendy’s Baconator meal. Hey, I may love gourmet food, but I’m not above a Baconator, ever.
After a few hours of browsing, a bikini wax (I was heading to the beaches in a few days, after all), and enduring lots of curious (but friendly) looks from local Pinoy/ays, I was back at the bus station and ready for my overnight adventure.
Overnight bus travel in the Philippines is NOT FUN
After being spoiled by Giant Ibis’s fully-reclined bed buses in Cambodia, and the decent enough sleeper buses in Vietnam, I was not prepared for the non-reclining, fully packed, built-in-1989 experience that was overnight bus travel in Luzon. Plus, I was the fifth wheel of a two-couple situation in my row (which was the very last row of the bus, natch).
When we arrived in Banaue at 7 a.m., I was bleary-eyed and exhausted.
However, I was able to find accommodation (without a pre-book), I got breakfast into me, and I took a short nap.
Banaue: The Experience
Though I was a little bleary-eyed after a sleepless night on the least-comfortable sleeper bus on my travels, I was so ready to do a little hiking. At breakfast I sat in a window and simply gazed at the early morning light creeping up the side of the terraced canyon below. So many shades of green, so much freshness in the mountain air, and the smell of new shoots seemed to permeate the cool morning.
So I wandered outside, where I first met Dan Dan. His mouth was full of some bright red concoction, but he didn’t overquote me on the price to see the Banaue viewpoints the first time around, so I decided to jump in with him. After an hour or so, we overcame the minor language barrier and became friends.
It turns out the red concoction (which nearly every single man in Banaue seemed to be chewing) was called Moma. Dan Dan happily explained to me the components of Moma as he created a new bundle for himself. These are: Betel Nut, some sort of paste, a chunk of tobacco, and a leaf to wrap it all up into a bundle for chewing. When these components are ground together, they react and turn red. It gives the ghoulish impression that everyone is rather… cannibalistic. Good fodder for a Stephen King story, perhaps. Because the concoction isn’t meant to be swallowed, huge gobs of red spit are littered all over the ground in various stages of drying. So don’t worry, the birds don’t shit blood. It’s just the Moma.
Dan Dan took me to all the major stops. The big bonus? Because it was still so early in morning, many of the spots were virtually empty! And the morning light was amazing for capturing photos. I took one of my favorite photos of my entire trip during this visit with Dan Dan around Banaue. At one of the stops, there were several older village woman dressed in traditional Ifugao dress. When Dan Dan took a photo of all of us together, they threw up peace signs and shouted out “Wakka Wakka Wakka!” I haven’t got a CLUE what it meant, but I found it charming.
Batad: The Experience
Day 2 was all about Batad. I read rave reviews about Batad as I researched the rice terrace region, so my expectations were high. And…
It. Did. NOT. Disappoint.
Dan Dan and I set off early and embarked on a 40-ish minute trike ride to The Saddle. This is as far as motor traffic can take you. The rest is hiking. Note: There were signs of a LOT of road construction in mid-2015, so this may change very shortly. As I made my way down the very steep hill to the trailhead, all I could think about was the burn that was gonna be in my buns on the way back up. That hill is STEEP. And that was just the beginning.
I arrived at the entrance kiosk and paid the environmental fee to enter the area. I was offered a guide for a cost, but I was determined to do this trek on my own. My research was directing me to one place: The Tappiya Waterfalls. This was beyond the basin of the rice terrace amphitheater, and it promised to be well worth the grueling hike.
I paused at the top of the town, utterly stunned by the vision that laid out before me. If I thought Banaue was beautiful, this was a whole other planet.
It was a bowl. A bowl of earth, ridged in hundreds of haphazard but elegant flowing lines, as though a master artist were imitating the hand of a child. Small plots of trees and rock poked through chartreuse new shoots of rice, a patchwork that stretches the limits of the number of adjectives that can be ascribed to the color of life: green. The bottom of this bowl was dotted with a few humble dwellings of brick red or bright blue, palm trees jutting between them.
I began the trek to the bottom of this bowl, sometimes guided by signs, sometimes by the friendly villagers. Nearly every home sold bottles of water, Gatorade, and snacks. Capitalism, like nature, will always find a way.
The heat of the day rose and started dripping down my neck, and I happily traded some of my pesos for two liters of water from the tired looking Pinay woman juggling a newborn. I was surrounded by 360 degrees of proof. Proof that man and nature can join forces to create something beautiful. Until now, I always thought that man marred nature. Batad showed me something different.
Somehow I made my way past the small peak that hides the falls from this incredible vertical farming community. I had the whole place to myself (except for the village girls selling water), my own private aquatic oasis on the fringes of a sea of rice fields. At least for the first 20 minutes. So I stripped to my bathing suit and swam as close to that roaring force as physics would allow. Eventually fellow trekkers joined me at the falls, and I reveled in the respite from the heat of the rice valley for as long as I could, before my schedule called me back.
I took a rest in the shade of a tree once I hit the houses on the far slope of the valley, and three toddler-aged children scurried over to stare. The youngest, a little girl, bravely sat on the bench next to me while the others hung back shyly. I took off the traditional mountain bracelet I had been gifted in Sapa, Vietnam, and gifted it to this little girl. From one rice terrace community to another. I was rewarded with a huge (and unexpected) hug around my knees from the recipient of my gift, and soon the other two children followed suit, chattering excitedly in Tagalog.
My final stop was at the restaurant near the info center kiosk at the start of the village. There, I rewarded myself for the grueling hike back up the terraces with a unique Batad culinary treat: Philippine Pizza! It was the strangest combination of crust, cheese, hot sauce, canned green beans and mild peppers. Maybe it was hunger from the hike, but it was strangely delicious.
After a final punishing leg up the road to The Saddle, I was reunited with a red-grinning Dan Dan, and I was motored back to Banaue, sweaty, exhausted, and utterly spiritually refreshed.